A Brave New Digital World: Uncovering Untold Stories in Digital Files, Part 3

This is the third blog post in a three part series about processing digital files. See the following links for Part 1 and Part 2.

Over the course of this past year, the Duke University Medical Center Archives (DUMCA) began addressing our digital files backlog by identifying and adding these digital files to the collections to which they belong. This process has uncovered materials current Archives staff were unaware of, introducing us to new stories about Duke and Duke Alumni. Capt. Herron

When appraising digital files located in the backlog (for more information about the DUMCA’s digital files backlog see A Brave New Digital World: Archiving Digital Files, Part 2), I came across an accession of scans of photographs, slides, and transparencies from Dr. Charles B. Herron, a Duke University School of Medicine alumni (Class of 1966), depicting service as a medic in Vietnam. The DUMCA has numerous records from individuals that served in WWII, particularly in the 65th General Hospital Unit. However, the DUMCA has limited collections documenting Duke Alumni’s experiences in other military conflicts. These photographs provide insight into medical care and soldiers’ experiences during the Vietnam War. As there was no contextual information about the photographs or Herron, the DUMCA contacted Duke University Medical School’s Development and Alumni Affairs office to inquire if they had any additional information about Herron. The Development and Alumni Affairs staff put the DUMCA in contact with him, and we conducted a phone interview with Herron about his time at Duke and his experiences during the Vietnam War. It was fascinating to hear a firsthand account about life at Duke in the 1960s and service in the Vietnam War. Herron’s interview and the details he provided not only bolsters the research value of these digitized images, it also provides the Archives with a rich and nuanced account of a Duke trained doctor’s experience as a Duke student and a as soldier during an incredibly contentious period of the United States history. 

Herron entered Duke Medical School in 1962, a time when the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was escalating. During his time at Duke, he worked at the morgue in the Anatomy Department and as a checker in the cafeteria. He described Duke as a small intimate community with only 77 medical students. Initially, Herron planned to join the Marines, but a local doctor in his hometown of McKenzie, Tennessee, encouraged him to pursue a medical degree and to apply to Duke. He received his MD from Duke University in 1966, and following graduation he interned at Duke Hospital and the Veterans Hospital. Herron planned on going into surgery despite his professors advising him to go into rheumatology. During his internship rotation, Herron asked to be placed in cardiology but was instead sent to dermatology. He enjoyed the regular business hours in dermatology, 8 am to 5 pm every day, and he decided to become a dermatologist instead of a surgeon or rheumatologist. When he changed his specialty, his professors and advisors warned him about a need for dermatologists in Vietnam. Two weeks after changing his concentration, Herron was drafted. 

Capt. Herron at Firebase BastogneHerron became part of the 101st Airborne as the brigade surgeon, which he described as a very bureaucratic role. Prior to deployment, he trained at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, and at Fort Campbell near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Herron and his unit left for Vietnam on December 12, 1967. They landed in Biên Hòa and Herron stated that he was a new guy, “red like a cherry,” because he had not seen any battles. Herron was part of the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade and was briefly sent to Củ Chi, an area with an extensive tunnel system created by the Viet Cong in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The Viet Cong used these tunnels as hiding spots and supply and communication routes.

After Củ Chi, Herron and his unit were sent to Huế, the former colonial capitol, which is where he was when the Tet Offensive began on January 30, 1968. The Tet Offensive was a military campaign launched by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The offensive began on January 30th during the Tết or Vietnamese New Year celebration. Herron’s unit was evacuated to Camp Eagle, a U.S. Army base controlled by the Marines and not far from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). 

Following this evacuation, Herron decided he wanted more action and volunteered to go out in the field at LZ Sally as a field surgeon. He was assigned to the 2nd battalion of the 327th infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Beckwith, who would later create the Delta Force; Herron served with the unit from mid-April to November 1968. The 2nd battalion of the 327th infantry spent time at Firebase Bastogne, and Herron’s job was to “clean people up and try to get them back in the field.” He stated that he was scared all of the time and that he and other soldiers never took their clothes off, even to sleep, because they never knew when they would be attacked. He recalled a time when a helicopter brought doctors and nurses out to the Front, and they looked at Herron and the other soldiers like they were animals. Herron agreed they probably did look pretty bad. The longest he went without taking off his uniform was 28 days, which meant he did not shower for that length of time. 

Much of the time, Herron spent five to six days on the firebases at the Front then he would go to the rear to clean up and do paperwork. Herron recalled a time he heard two booms right after returning to the Front. A soldier had died from friendly fire. When reflecting on his time on the Front Herron stated, “the only thing more dangerous than enemy fire was friendly fire.” 

Herron described his role during his time on the Front as “basically maintenance and keeping people alive.” The only way to get out of the field was to get shot and go through med (medical) or finish one’s tour. Herron stated in order to get sent back to the rear, some soldiers would shoot themselves in the foot or put an arm or leg up during a fight. They did not have medivacs with Red Cross support, instead they had sick ships to remove the sick and dead. Herron had to mark which bodies should not be viewed because they were in bad condition due to explosions. 

During Herron’s time in Vietnam, a helicopter he and seven other passengers were aboard crashed in the jungle. Herron recounted how they relayed their location to the base but were told the base could not get anyone there to rescue them until the morning. Herron and the others knew if they were left in the jungle they would not survive the night. Fortunately, the base managed to send helicopters to rescue them; however, they did not have the type of rescue equipment used today. The helicopter threw down rope and the soldiers had to tie the rope around their bodies and equipment, making sure to bring all of their equipment so it would not fall into the hands of the Viet Cong. Since the soldiers were hanging by a rope underneath the helicopter, the pilot had to fly slowly or else the rope would swing into the tail rotor. Herron stated how worried he was about getting shot as they flew away, flying through the trees in the jungle. The helicopter rescued people one at a time and Herron was the fifth person out of six to be rescued. On the sixth rescue, the Viet Cong opened fire and put thirty rounds into the helicopter. A second helicopter had to come and rescue the last individual. Leech Island

Herron said that his time working in the morgue at Duke as student helped prepare him the most for Vietnam because he got used to seeing dead bodies and parts of dead bodies. During his year in Vietnam, he saw only one other Duke graduate, Joe Snead, who put a cast on Herron after he crushed his thumb.

Following his tour in Vietnam, Herron completed his two-year dermatology residency in Augusta, Georgia, and then a yearlong residency in internal medicine. He passed his boards in 1972, moved to Jackson, Tennessee, and worked in general internal medicine for two years before deciding to go back to dermatology. 

Herron recalled his years at Duke fondly but mentioned that the Duke he left in 1966 was not the same Duke he came back to in 1969. The school and the country were different. The Tet Offensive had caused a decline in U.S. public support for the war and student protests against the war increased during the summer of 1968. 

Uncovering these images and talking to Herron helped illustrate the fact that records are created by people; furthermore, they contain evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their daily life. In this case, Herron’s photographs captured images of a time and place during great upheaval. Understanding why records were created helps add contextual information and brings them to life. Often, when appraising and ingesting digital files, I forget about the humans who created them and get caught up in file types, file names, file sizes, and obsolete digital formats. It was a privilege to be able to rediscover Herron’s digitized images, learn about the sacrifices he made for his country, and then be able to put all that information together to make them accessible to researchers. 

After finding these photographs and speaking with Herron, the Archives added these backlogged digital images to the Audiovisual Collection, and they are available to patrons in the reading room at the DUMCA. If you have any questions or wish to know more about digital files at the DUMCA, please contact us

This blog was contributed by Archives Intern Kahlee Leingang